National Museum is itself an artifact

The museum’s temporary exhibits change twice a year, in May and November.

By Key to Cayman


17 December, 2013


Of all the many interesting facts about the Cayman Islands National Museum, perhaps the most fascinating is that the building itself is a major artifact.

The history of the structure began in the 1830s as a one-story building for government business, constructed using traditional wattle-and-daub architecture. Since then, it has been home to a post office, library, secondary school, dancehall and courthouse, along the way adding a second-level floor.

That last incarnation led to the saying, “Walk the 12 steps,” meaning a person was going up the building’s external staircase to attend court. Various additions over the years led to three separate buildings, which have since been attached, and the museum officially opened in 1990.

Destruction caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 led to the museum shutting its doors for a number of years to enable extensive repairs and renovation, finally reopening in 2009. But out of that work an incredible piece of history was discovered.

The museum also spent time as a jail and during post-Ivan repair work graffiti written in pencil was uncovered on one of the layers of a wall of the Old Gaol. That section is now enclosed in glass but visitors will be able to see the writing of that long-ago prisoner. The rest of the jail is still being worked on and, again, visitors can marvel at the progress through a glass wall.

Before walking through the museum, take 15 minutes to view the introductory video, which is both educational and entertaining, a great start to your visit.

The actual exhibits are a diverse and absorbing mix of items detailing the cultural and natural history, and all things in between, of the Cayman Islands.

Museum director Peggy Leshikar-Denton says that anyone interested in learning a bit about these islands need look no further. “There is no better place to capture the spirit of the Cayman Islands in an hour. It’s a great introduction to the people, history and art. It’s a gem.”

That sentiment is well supported by what’s on display. Two permanent exhibits are dedicated to natural and cultural history, the former focusing on scientific studies and collections including everything from a bat cave to turtle nests, and the latter on shipbuilding, rope making and turtling. In all, there are about 9,000 artifacts in the museum’s permanent collection, which are alternated in the exhibits.

The museum owes its beginnings to one man’s love of all things Caymanian. Ira Thompson, who began accumulating items from all over Grand Cayman in the 1930s, provided the foundation for the museum, and the collection that bears his name contains about 1,200 pieces, which are rotated in the Cultural History Exhibit and in temporary galleries. Among the items that are displayed are a coffee mill and crank telephone from the early 1900s and a goatskin drum.

The museum’s temporary exhibits change twice a year, in May and November. Slated for May 2014, to coincide with International Museum Day, the so-called Changing Gallery will feature Cayman’s sporting stars, including Olympic sprinter Cydonie Mothersill and boxer Charles Whittaker.

The adjacent Children’s Gallery usually complements that exhibit and will include hands-on, interactive displays.
Lastly, each Special Tribute Gallery exhibit focuses on an individual who has played a significant role in Cayman’s culture and history.

Whether you are a first-time or repeat visitor to the Cayman Islands, if you haven’t yet enjoyed a tour of this historical treasure, add it to your list. As Leshikar-Denton says, “Everybody who steps foot on the island should come to the museum.”

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